Saturday, January 22, 2011

The kingdom of heaven is present

Matthew 4 12-23

Last week, I spoke about having close encounters of the Jesus kind. Did you have any during the past week? Or did you remember any from the past? ... 

Today’s Gospel reading gives us Matthew’s version of the calling of the first disciples. Before this, Jesus had been in Judea, near Jerusalem, with John the Baptist. When John was arrested, it probably seemed too risky for Jesus to stay in that area, so he returned home to the Galilee.
Settling in the town of Capernaum, he got to know the people who lived there. At that time, there were probably about 1,000 people living in the town. He began preaching and teaching, and gathering followers.
I agree with a couple of resources I read this week. I think it’s likely that Jesus and the disciples left Capernaum for a day or two at time and returned home to maintain the fishing business in-between short mission trips. Jesus and the disciples stayed in the Galilee for a long time, and this would be very possible. It’s easy to imagine Jesus himself working or preaching in Capernaum and perhaps the Roman city of Tiberius, only 7 or 8 miles from Capernaum. Later, when Jesus headed for Jerusalem with the disciples, that trip would have taken several days each way.
We know the occupation of some of the disciples – the first four were fishermen. Matthew – or Levi – was a tax collector. Mary Magdalene had been healed by Jesus. Who were the others? We don’t know much about them. We do know they were not the wealthy, powerful, important people of the community or kingdom.
I have tried to imagine who Jesus might call today. Because in America we have a better sense of respect for people of all kinds, it’s hard to get just the same perspective, but we can try. Probably among his disciples would be housing construction workers, certified nursing assistants, bus drivers, garbage truck workers, oil change mechanics, homemakers, grocery store clerks, restaurant wait staff, day care staff, custodians and janitors, undocumented laborers, perhaps a pregnant teenager. You get the idea, and can most likely add to my list. These people have little power, little money, and are not very important – unless they go on strike and we realize how much we need them.
The profile of Jesus’ disciples also gives us a portrait of the kingdom of God – or as Matthew calls it – the kingdom of heaven. It is radically different from our usual view of the world and the way things are. Even with our American democratic – representative – government, there are serious inequalities. In the kingdom of heaven, differences disappear. No one has too much, no one has too little. Everyone has enough to eat, meaningful work, the respect of others.
For the next several weeks we will read the Sermon on Mount, a bit at a time, and discover just how radically different the kingdom of heaven is from life as we know it. The kingdom of God – or heaven – is not a place or a thing – it’s a condition. It is the reigning of God over all that exists. When God reigns, the universe operates as God originally intended it to.
But God’s reign also allows us to have control over our own lives – which usually means we think we know better than God what is best for us and for those around us. We are fearful, selfish, more concerned with our own needs and wants than about the needs and wants of other persons.
Jesus came to paint a different picture for us – a picture the powerful and wealthy and important don’t necessarily appreciate. But it’s a picture that the poor and oppressed can see as painted for them, too. It’s the role of the Church (with a capital C) and the congregation to continue painting this image of the reign of God in the world and in our local community. It comes down to us as individuals who may not be wealthy, powerful or important in the community, but when we work together, we can make a large impact. We can make sure the community knows the kingdom of heaven is present here.
The kingdom of heaven is present wherever Jesus is, whenever we believers work to make the world a better place for those who need a better life, a better place.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we work to fill shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. We will not see the recipients of the shoeboxes but we trust that God’s spirit will be there.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we make quilts, when we donate fabric and batting for quilts, when we send the quilts off to be a blanket or a roof for someone living with so much less than we have. We will not meet the recipients of the quilts, but we believe that God’s Spirit will be there.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we donate cash, gas cards, and gifts for needy families in our neighborhood. A few of us do know who these people are, and we know how grateful these folks are. In the last few months we have kept the utilities turned on for two families, provided Christmas dinner to several families, given gas cards to families so they could get to work, found a trumpet so a child could stay in middle school band, and helped a family after a flat tire caused an unexpected strain on the meager family budget.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we as a congregation recognize that we will not always agree on everything, but we can love each other and stay together even when we disagree. For example, I know not everyone knows or likes all the hymns we sing on Sunday, but I hope everyone likes at least one of them.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we do not expect each other to be perfect, but recognize that we all have gifts to offer to God and God is pleased in the giving, not in the perfection of the giving. For example, it doesn’t matter to God if the processional cross is placed in the holder before the candles are lit, or afterwards. It does matter that someone wants to serve God by lighting candles and carrying the cross.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we as a congregation determine that we will not just survive but thrive by reaching out to others, instead of only seeing to our own wants and needs. When we focus on the needs of those in the community, we become aware that not everyone is like us, but we are all God’s children, and we all need to know God loves and forgives us.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we make sure children and youth know they are valued in the congregation – and in God’s kingdom. For example, when we commit to teaching Sunday school, when we allow children and youth to learn to acolyte by doing it, and when we take youth into the city for ice skating and some gawking, we teach children that they are important to God and to us.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we make sure the infirm, hospitalized, and homebound members know they are still valued members of the congregation – and in God’s kingdom. Some homebound members miss being at worship and appreciate listening to the tapes of the service; some only care that someone has come to see them—even if they do not remember who came once the visitor has left.
The kingdom of heaven is present when we all know we have been called by God to serve in some way. Over a lifetime, we may be called to serve in many different ways. Even when we have gone to live in a nursing home, we can serve God. For example, my buddy Hans served Hope in many ways for many years, irritated lots of folks with his determined manner, even as he was determined to do his best for the congregation. He still serves God in the nursing home by getting to know his care givers by name and making them feel good about helping him.
The kingdom of heaven is present among rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, important and invisible. The kingdom of heaven is present wherever ministry is done with love and forgiveness and mutual acceptance. The kingdom of heaven is present wherever Jesus is, and wherever we serve others in Jesus’ name. This week, see if you can notice the presence of the kingdom of heaven in your life.
Please pray with me. Almighty God, you could force us to follow you like slaves, but you offer us the freedom to choose. Help us choose to follow you into your kingdom, into your way of serving, into your way of loving. Help us to remember we are never too old to serve you. Amen